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SILK by Aarathi Prasad Kirkus Star


A World History

by Aarathi Prasad

Pub Date: April 30th, 2024
ISBN: 9780063160255
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

The past and future of a coveted fabric.

Geneticist Prasad, author of In the Bonesetter's Waiting Room, delivers a vibrant cultural and scientific history of an amazing natural fiber: silk. From a diet of mulberry leaves, the caterpillars that Linnaeus called Bombyx mori extrude threads that form a cocoon, protecting them as they transform into moths. The extraordinary properties of this thread became the basis of cloth-making by Neolithic Chinese farmers, who bred and harvested the silkworms and also used the eggs, larvae, pupae, and feces in traditional medicines, dyes, fertilizers, and flavoring. However, silk-making did not originate only in China. Archaeological expeditions to India have found evidence of silk in artifacts made between 2450 and 2000 B.C.E.—not from Bombyx mori, but from other distinct types of moths across the subcontinent. Besides tracing the earliest evidence of silk production, Prasad creates richly detailed portraits of the many 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century naturalists who devoted themselves to investigating the mysterious process of metamorphosis, the anatomy of silkworms, and the properties of silk threads, making intrepid journeys in search of caterpillars. Although prized for the shimmering luster that made it a hugely profitable commodity in international trade, silk—especially spider silk—is also extremely strong, making it useful for suturing and dressing wounds and for military use, including creating crosshairs, parachutes, and bullet-proof vests. The forcible silking of spiders gave rise to various contraptions whereby spiders would be immobilized and stimulated to produce extrusions 52 times finer and “nearly three times stronger, more elastic, and more durable than the moth’s.” Prasad reports much scientific interest in producing synthetic spider silk proteins that could offer a “biodegradable antidote to plastic”; thus far, it has been a daunting challenge. The book is generously illustrated with scientific drawings and photos.

A colorful, wholly absorbing narrative tapestry.